Financial Journalist Networks Or EMPNs?

We have been thinking about this concept for some time. Given the amount of financial television we watch, it would be surprising if we did not. This week two events helped to crystallize our thoughts. The first was the appearance of John Madden on CNBC’s Fast Money show and the second was the rude treatment of the venerable economist Martin Feldstein by CNBC Anchor Mark Haines. 

The Haines behavior reminded us of the later years of Howard Cosell when Cosell’s vanity seemed to get the better of discretion and balance. Howard Cosell was not an athlete. He believed that as a journalist he was more intelligent than  athletes and more capable of broadcasting a game or a boxing match. He substituted bellicosity for knowledge and he resorted to yelling when reason failed him. He was consumed with a sense of being bigger than the game. We saw these traits in the behavior of Mark Haines during his interview with Dr. Martin Feldstein. (Watch this clip and decide for yourself).

The appearance of John Madden reminded us how much sports broadcasting has changed since the days of Howard Cosell. The Fast Money promo described John Madden as “the best sports broadcaster who ever lived”. How true!

Actually Mr. Madden is far more than the best sports broadcaster that ever lived. Mr. Madden completely changed the nature of the entire sports broadcasting business. He took sports broadcasting away from journalists like Cosell and delivered it to professional sports athletes and coaches. ESPN then took the Madden concept to greater heights and became the most valuable network in America.

These ex-players and ex-coaches played the game to win. They bring to us the insights they mastered during their careers. They bring us their passion for the game and unravel the secrets of their techniques. When we hear Phil Simms, Troy Aikman, Joe Theisman cover a game, we get an insight into the quarterback’s art. Howie Long brings us the intricacies of line play. What can we say about listening to Magic Johnson analyze a basketball game? It is a treat.

Just a few years ago, the post market shows of CNBC were duds.
Then CNBC hired two investment professionals to anchor a new show. One anchor was a professional economist and the other was a former hedge fund manager and a private client broker. 

The launch of “Kudlow and Cramer” changed the face of CNBC in the way John Madden changed sports broadcasting. 
It was Larry Kudlow who added macro thinking to CNBC’s traditional banal conversations with equity fund managers. Larry Kudlow could speak with ex-Governors of the Fed with knowledge and credibility. Jim Cramer brought hedge fund managers as guests to add tremendous insight and a level of market discussion far beyond the capability of CNBC’s journalistic anchors. In addition, both Kudlow and Cramer proved to be far better journalists than any of the traditional journalistic anchors at CNBC. 

Jim Cramer became the franchise player of CNBC when he created the zany but valuable “Mad Money” show.  We know that this show helped viewers who wanted to invest in stocks but never had the guts to do so. Cramer’s show gave them the courage to take the jump.

CNBC built on Cramer’s success by adding “Fast Money” to its evening lineup. This is Financial ESPN or EMPN* as we call it (M for market replaces S for Sports). It is an entertaining show with real trading content. Frankly, the content used to be much weaker. CNBC has fixed this problem by adding its ace Rick Santelli to Fast Money.

Despite the success of Fast Money and Kudlow & Cramer, CNBC has chosen to not change its market hours programming. That is why some of their day shows remain boring. Our point is better made by comparing the 11:00 am The Call with the 9-11am Squawk on the Street. 

The Call used to be boring with inane opinions and cliche segments. CNBC rescued it by making Larry Kudlow co-anchor this show with Melissa Lee and Trish Regan. Larry has raised the content level of this show substantially and built great chemistry with Melissa and Trish. This is now a show worth watching.

On the other hand, the 9-11 am Squawk on the Street is going down in quality and appeal. What a shame? This show has the perfect time slot. The market opens at 9:30 am and often changes its initial direction in about 15-20 minutes. On most days, important economic news is released at 10:00 and on two days, energy data is released at 10:30 am. Both releases impact the stock market.

But, the Haines-Burnett pair is simply unable to capture the excitement of these market gyrations and even less able to help viewers like us interpret these gyrations. So the show is reduced to inane jokes and interesting but irrelevant segments.

Can you imagine the value Jim Cramer could add to this show? He is a professional investor who understands and loves the stock market. He would help us figure out whether to believe in the opening move or to fade it. He would help us by showing how to interpret the economic data from a stock investor’s point of view.

The Burnett-Cramer pair would be superb because of their chemistry and obvious friendship. Frankly, we miss the Cramer of the Kudlow & Cramer days. That Cramer brought expert guests and interviewed them expertly to help us viewers understand the markets. If Jim Cramer is too busy, CNBC could get Steve Liesman to be Erin’s co-anchor and let Cramer come in for daily segments like Santelli does on Fast Money.

CNBC may be deluding itself with its current ratings streak. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Americans were mystified by the sudden onset of that huge crisis and looked for answers. They turned to CNBC as the leading network. As Americans became comfortable that the crisis had passed, the massive 2009 stock market rally came along to help CNBC. But, if and when this rally fades, CNBC will probably find its ratings go downhill as they have always gone in market declines.

This is why we think CNBC must diversify its content by increasing its focus on bonds and at the same time transform itself by adopting a “journalist – professional” dual anchor model. This is also an opportunity for Fox Business to leapfrog a tired CNBC journalistic approach.  

There is a reason ESPN became the most valued network in America. Will CNBC or Fox Business learn the lesson and transform themselves into EMPNs? If they don’t, they better pray for a multi-year bull market in stocks that makes money for all viewers.

*ESPN was originally an acronym for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. Replacing S for Sports with M for Markets gives us EMPN.  We thank the readers who requested clarification of the acronym EMPN.

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